Biden airstrikes heat up debate over war powers

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
Greg Nash

President Biden’s airstrikes over the weekend against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have added fuel to a simmering debate in Congress over presidential war powers.

Top Democrats have backed Biden’s move as a proportionate and necessary response to escalating drone strikes from the militias against U.S. interests in Iraq.

But the strikes — the second time Biden has hit the militias — came as Democrats were already working to claw back presidential war powers.

And even as several Democrats said they trust Biden’s judgment, they also pushed the White House for further explanation for the latest strikes, with some expressing concerns about an escalating tit for tat between the United States and the militias that would demand Biden come to Congress for approval to launch military action.

“There is no doubt that President Biden possesses the ability to defend our forces abroad, and I continue to trust inherently the national security instincts of this White House,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

“My concern is that the pace of activity directed at U.S. forces and the repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy forces are starting to look like what would qualify as a pattern of hostilities under the War Powers Act,” Murphy added. “Both the Constitution and the War Powers Act require the president to come to Congress for a war declaration under these circumstances.”

On Sunday evening, the Pentagon announced it had carried out two strikes in Syria and one in Iraq against facilities it said were being used by a pair of Iranian-backed militias launching drone attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.

U.S. military officials had been raising the alarm about the drone strikes for months, with U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie telling reporters in May he thinks “it’s a dangerous situation.”

But underscoring the risk of escalation after Biden’s strike, U.S. forces in Syria were “attacked by multiple rockets” Monday evening and U.S. forces responded with “counter-battery artillery fire at rocket launching positions,” spokesperson Col. Wayne Marotto tweeted. There were no immediate reports of injuries and damage was being assessed, Marotto added.

Sunday’s U.S. military action came after Biden struck the same pair of militias in Syria in February after a spate of rocket attacks against U.S. interests and personnel in Iraq.

That first round of strikes set off an effort in Congress to repeal aging authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF).

Biden has not cited any AUMFs as the basis for either the February strikes or the most recent set. Rather, the White House has cited his authority under Article II of the Constitution to defend U.S. personnel.

“The president takes legal authority and justification for military action quite seriously,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “And certainly, we consult our legal teams to ensure we have that justification. And we certainly feel confident we do.”

The White House “completed a number of member and staff notifications” before the strikes and were continuing to brief lawmakers this week, she added.

Still, the latest military action comes as Congress appears poised to repeal the 2002 AUMF — an effort that received momentum after the February strikes — and could roil the congressional debate over war powers.

“I believe these actions are overdue and highlight the continued need for the 2002 AUMF, or — at a minimum — the need for a comprehensive replacement before a repeal can be considered, especially given that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are an ongoing threat to American troops,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement.

The House voted earlier this month to repeal the 2002 AUMF, which authorized the Iraq War. The House is also expected to repeal the 1991 AUMF for the Gulf War, as well as a 1957 resolution related to military action in the Middle East, in Tuesday votes that were scheduled before Sunday’s strike.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to consider a bill to repeal both the 2002 and 1991 AUMFs in July after delaying consideration at the request of Republicans who demanded a briefing before the vote.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is leading the repeal effort in the Senate, said Monday that the latest strikes appear to be a “classic” application of Article II authority.

But Kaine, who said he would be briefed by the administration later Monday, also acknowledged the strikes could raise new questions from lawmakers in the war powers debate.

“I’m sure it will add a new level of questions that people will raise,” Kaine said. “They will want to make sure that they don’t need the ‘02 AUMF to engage in Article II self-defense.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he would be “seeking more information from the administration in the coming days regarding what specifically predicated these strikes, any imminent threats they believed they were acting against, and more details on the legal authority the administration relied upon.”

But Menendez also held that the United States “must always take decisive action to protect our personnel and interests against attacks” and that “Iranian-backed militia groups have increasingly targeted U.S. persons and assets.”

Still, he suggested Biden’s strikes would feature in Congress’s war powers debate.

“Congress has the power to authorize the use of military force and declarations of war, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to hear from the administration more on these strikes as well as have a broader discussion on the 2002 AUMF when we return to Washington, D.C.,” Menendez said in his statement.

Some more progressive lawmakers had a harsher assessment of Biden’s strikes, however.

“This constant cycle of violence and retribution is a failed policy and will not make any of us safer,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted. “Congress has authority over War Powers and should be consulted before any escalation.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said in a tweet the “continued sidestepping of Congress by the executive branch must stop.”

“President Biden’s airstrikes were NOT authorized by Congress, as required by the Constitution,” he tweeted. “Congress must reassert its war powers authority & end US involvement in endless conflicts around the world.”

Pressed on whether Biden would come to Congress for authorization for any further strikes, Psaki reiterated the administration’s willingness to work with lawmakers on updating existing AUMFs and stressed that the president is “confident” in his Article II authorities for Sunday’s action.

But even as some Democrats expressed frustration, top Democrats stuck by Biden.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the strikes “appear to be a targeted and proportional response to a serious and specific threat,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the strikes “were intended to deter and prevent additional attacks by Iran-backed militias.”

“Based on what I have learned so far, I believe these were an appropriate and reasonable use of force intended for defensive purposes,” Schiff said in a statement. “The Intelligence Committee will closely review the basis for this strike, including an assessment of whether this action will truly deter or prevent further attacks by these militias using [drones] and other means.”

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Adam Schiff airstrikes Bob Menendez Chris Murphy Congress Ilhan Omar Iraq Jen Psaki Jim Inhofe Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Peter DeFazio Syria Tim Kaine war power war powers act
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